On the surface, it would appear that Eastern Michigan coach Ron English went into spring workouts a little bewildered over just where to start. His team was coming off an 0-12 season in his debut with the Eagles, and while scoring a league-low 197 points, it had given up a league-high of 459 points.
While attending to the pressing need to upgrade the talent and the execution across the board, English and company also went to work on the more subtle aspects of the game. He needs to make a lot of fixes, but the management of the team's psyche is as critical as any.
English, who had the Michigan Wolverines' defense ranked 10th in the nation in 2006, leaves spring feeling fairly confident that his current team has bought into his approach that an aggressive defense is the starting point for building a great defense.
English even went to the extent of having his Eastern Michigan players watch clips of his Wolverines' defense in action, hoping the Eagles would adopt that head-hunting mantra. The spring game had more than a few examples of that philosophy taking hold with the Eastern Michigan defense.
The offense will need to improve significantly as well, and although sophomore quarterback Alex Gillettt and redshirt freshman Devontae Payne are very inexperienced by MAC standards, they appear to have the tools and the potential to be effective, with the proper support around them.
The challenges are many and the mountain is high, but the Eagles leave spring reasonably confident that they are headed in the right direction. How much they will move up the curve is still a wild card nobody can define.NOTES, QUOTES
--There's no glory in fielding one of the youngest teams in the nation, as Eastern Michigan did last year when 25 players saw their first college action, with nine of them being true freshmen.
--Eastern Michigan's quarterback sweepstakes took on an interesting twist this spring, with 6-6 redshirt freshman Devontae Payne using the more traditional pocket passer mode, and sophomore Alex Gillett offering more of an improvisational approach.
--The Eagles benefited this winter from the university's new $3.9 million indoor practice facility. The structure with an inflatable roof is 410 feet long, 210 feet wide and 75 feet tall, and gave the Eagles a place to practice every phase of the game away from the harsh elements.
LB Garrett Gronowski -- After being recruited as a safety with a reputation for packing a wallop, the 6-3, 217-pounder was moved to linebacker this spring and impressed everyone with how quickly he picked up some of the nuances of the position.
QB Devontae Payne -- A year spent as a redshirt has given the recruit from Cleveland a foundation with the system, and Payne used the spring to demonstrate that he has some skills that will help the Eagles. He created an intense competition with sophomore Alex Gillett, and both benefited from that climate.
RB Corey Welch -- The junior had 154 yards on 34 carries with two scores in 2009 as the backup to starter Dwayne Priest, but Welch showed in the spring that he is not content in a supplemental role. He has made a push for one of the top jobs at receiver, while also remaining a solid option in the kick return game.
DT Brandon Slater -- By demonstrating a zest for the physical, attacking style that head coach Ron English demands, Slater enhanced his stock and should enter fall camp sitting high on the depth chart.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There is no doubt that our players will be bigger, stronger, tougher and coached better than they were a year ago." -- Eastern Michigan coach Ron English on how his players have bought in to his overall philosophy for successSTRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: The Eagles have been the brunt of too many bad jokes after going 0-12 in the 2009 season, and second-year head coach Ron English has hammered home the point that the game is all about respect, and that earning respect is the first order of business. Eastern Michigan needs to experience some success in 2010 to sustain the English method, and it will be hard to come by in the non-league games, since the Eagles open with Army and also face Virginia and Vanderbilt, and then there is that date in the first month of the season when the Eagles will be facing the Buckeyes in The Horseshoe in Columbus.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Eagles will put the ball in the hands of sophomore Alex Gillett or redshirt freshman Devontae Payne, and ask them to make this a much more productive offense. Senior Dwayne Priest, the leading rusher from 2009, returns to put a solid, reliable back in the lineup with a young quarterback. The offensive line has enough veterans to give the unit the foundation for positive results, but the Eagles need a quantum leap in production after scoring just over 12 points per game last season.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The pieces became more clearly defined over the month of spring practice, and it looks like an improved unit will take the field in the fall. Measuring that improvement will be the Eastern Michigan opposition, but the depth and experience on the line with juniors Javon Reese and Brandon Slater and senior Ryan Leonard make it appear to be a team strength. A crowd is competing for linebacker work, with converted former safety Garrett Gronowski adding punch to the mix. The corners and safeties are more experienced, which is an upgrade over the youth that the Eagles had to play at times a year ago.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: The was a real sense of urgency here, since starting punter Zach Johnson and place-kicker Joe Carrithers were both lost to graduation. The only returnee on the unit is sophomore long-snapper Mike Zupancic and he solidified his role over the spring. Junior Thomas Baertschi comes out of camp as the leading candidate for both the punting and kicking jobs, but he is aware the Eagles coaches expect the evolution of this unit to continue in earnest through fall camp.
--OL Bridger Buche, who was a starter in 2008, missed all of the 2009 season due to a hip injury but he is back and healthy and pressing for a place on the depth chart after a solid spring workout period.
--OL Eric Davis missed the final three games last year with a knee injury, but he was cleared for contact in the spring and appears to be recovered from the injury.
--S Latarrius Thomas, a highly-regarded transfer from Louisville, had a steady showing this spring and will be eligible to play for the Eagles this fall.
Previous Report: 04/28/2010